Transformed to transform
Nearly three dozen men in blue shirts listen intently to MCC worker Ron Muse, turning the worn pages of their Bibles to find passages he refers to and jotting notes on papers tucked inside. More than an hour into the study, their attention doesn’t waver.
But Muse is no droll Bible teacher either.
“I sought the Lord and he delivered me from some of my fears?” he baits the men to respond.
“No,” the men answer back.
“I sought the Lord and he delivered me from all my fears?”
“All my fears,” the men echo. From what? “All my fears,” they shout.
The men Muse is teaching are all prisoners at the Philadelphia Detention Center, a minimum- to medium-security prison. The majority await hearings in lieu of bail for crimes such as driving under the influence or burglary. They fear their arrests mean they won’t be able to get a job, that they’ll lose relationships with their families.
Muse, an MCC East Coast peace worker, spends 10 hours a week at the prison leading Bible studies, meeting with inmates individually and doing “foot patrol” — checking in with people as he hands out Bibles and Christian literature that prisoners have requested.
It’s not unusual for him to see people in prison who he met the day before on the streets of his North Philadelphia neighborhood; nor is it unusual for Muse to invite them to his house for Bible study when they are released.
Across the U.S., MCC workers serve alongside local churches and church organizations, sharing God’s love as they carry out practical ministries of peace and justice. Muse, by building relationships in prison and on the streets, is laying a foundation for peace in an area where arrests and addiction are common.
This position grew out of MCC’s connection with the Kingdom Builders Anabaptist Network of Greater Philadelphia. Local church leaders saw Muse’s passion and commitment for working with prisoners and urged MCC to partner with a faith-based organization, Crossroads Community Center, to fund his work in prisons and outreach in his neighborhood.
“We seek close connections to local Anabaptist churches and want their gifts to be used in ministry,” says Fred Kauffman, program coordinator for MCC’s work in Philadelphia. “Ron engages men and women with directness and candor, inviting them to take responsibility for their lives and to seek personal transformation.”
Angel Correa, an inmate being held on charges of receiving stolen property, knows Muse, now 37, from childhood. “Everybody can relate to him,” Correa says of Muse. “The way he brings the Word out is more relatable because of his own background.”
Correa used to be Muse’s inseparable partner in crime in the 1990s. They lived in a neighborhood known as “The Badlands,” also the title of a documentary by former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, showing how this area had deteriorated into a haven for drug users and sellers.
Angel dust, also known as PCP, was Muse’s drug of choice as a teenager. It made him violent and unpredictable. It also made him money.
Like many young people in the neighborhood, Muse was hungry, had nothing new to put on and was tired of living “like a bum.” He turned to the fastest way he knew to make money on the streets — selling drugs. Influenced by his churchgoing mother, Muse prayed the sinner’s prayer, but his lifestyle didn’t change. At 19, he was 125 pounds, with unkempt hair and skin mottled with purple blotches associated with drug use.
He says he knew, on some level, that freedom from addiction was based in the Bible. After getting high one day, he came home and started reading, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”
From that moment on, Muse says, he was transformed. “It was like Jesus stood up on the inside of me and said, ‘You’re new.’ I felt I was new. I felt like I was on a different plane.” He stopped using drugs. “The Word,” as Muse calls the Bible, became his passion.
Correa first noticed the change in Muse when he saw his old friend carrying his Bible on their block. “I see him changing and helping people after that. He gave a lot of us hope,” Correa says. “If he could change, we could.”
“Transformed people transform people,” Muse says repeatedly.
Muse’s intensity and candor, laced with humor, appeal to the men at the Bible study. He also gives time to individual inmates, like John Doerr. Doerr is back in prison one month after being released, and he is kicking himself for getting drunk, which led to a long list of charges. Muse listens to his story, which includes repeated childhood abuse, trauma and abandonment.
“What God desires for you is to give you a future and a hope,” Muse tells him. “Why is this important? If you are looking forward and you know God has good things for you, it helps you with the present fight.”
Perhaps, Muse suggests, while Doerr’s in prison, God is providing him an opportunity to learn more about resisting temptation and forgiving the people who hurt him.
Doerr promises to come to Bible study that afternoon but doesn’t show — a fact that doesn’t escape Muse. Not everyone he meets, whether at the prison or in his neighborhood, will take hold of the message he offers. Muse chooses not to get discouraged, reminding himself of Jesus’ words that some plant the seed, some water the seed and others harvest.
“When you are converted, you need to strengthen the brotherhood,” Muse says. “A lot of groups come to prisons and try to get people saved, but a lot of guys are saved. We just need to fertilize the seed. All I do is give them what God gave me. There’s no better job in the world.”
You can View a photo gallery about Ron Muse and his work at the Philadelphia Dentention Center